New Brunswick

Escuminac Disaster survivors among 5 honoured with Senate medals

Five Miramichiers were presented with Senate medals to honour contributions they made to their communities by Senator David Adams Richards in a short ceremony at the Historic Beaverbrook House in Miramichi.

'They deserve all the recognition they get for a lifetime of service'

Alphonse Doucet and Theodore Williston, two survivors of the Escuminac Disaster of 1959, received medals for the heroism they exhibited during the tragic event that took 35 lives. (Gail Harding/CBC)

As family and friends looked on, five Miramichiers were presented with Senate medals to honour the contributions they have made to their communities. 

Senator David Adams Richards made the presentations Saturday in a short ceremony at the Historic Beaverbrook House in Miramichi. 

"They deserve all the recognition they get for a lifetime of service, to not only the Miramichi, but to the province," Richards said.

Two of the medals went to two survivors of the Escuminac Disaster, Alphonse Doucet and Theodore Williston. 

The Escuminac disaster

48 years ago
Duration 18:32
A vicious hurricane strikes the Gulf of St. Lawrence, killing 35 and devastating the town of Escuminac.
While both men say they were honoured to receive the medals, they argue they aren't heroes for what they did during the fierce hurricane that devastated the small port of Escuminac on June 19, 1959, sinking 22 fishing boats and drowning 35 men.

Richards respectfully disagreed. While reading the short biographies of each man, he was visibly moved by what the two had survived and how they managed to do so. 

"I read a speech in June about Mr. Williston and Mr. Doucet and although it's been almost 60 years and the memory had faded for some, there were many, especially New Brunswickers, who knew exactly what I was talking about," Richards said. 

In an interview after the ceremony, Richards said both men were truly heroic in that terrifying storm. 

"They'd be the last to say they were, but everyone knows they were, so to honour them in this small way is the least I can do for them." 

Reluctant heroes

After receiving the medal with his name engraved on it, Williston was still reluctant to accept any accolades about what he had done, including towing boats to safety and rescuing another captain and his dead crewman from their sinking boat. 

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my crew. They were the ones out in the boat giving me instructions as to what were the problems. floating nets, pieces of boats and things like that," Williston said.

"You've got to respect what they did and what they did for me, spotting survivors and those I picked up, it was them that saw them." 

Five Miramichiers received Senate 150th Anniversary Medals for their long service and contributions to their communities. They are, front: Malthilda Murdoch and back: Susan Butler, Senator David Adams Richards who presented the medals, Alphonse Doucet, Theodore Williston and Melanie Ross. (Gail Harding/CBC)
Williston, who describes his age as "50 plus 37," says when he and Doucet get together, their conversation always turns to the disaster and what happened. 

"And I never forget what he said, he said if it wasn't for the grace of God, we wouldn't be here." 

Doucet, who was only 17 years old and a crew member on his father's boat during the storm, agreed. 

"I always thought I was something until I realized if it hadn't been for him up there, I wouldn't be here either and he's right." 

Doucet, now 77, said he was honoured to receive the medal but that he was not a hero. 

"I was at the place to do the only thing that I had to do. That was to help my father, who had 12 kids, and my younger brother was 14. That's all I done, my best." 

Doucet also commended Williston for saving so many. "This is a friend of mine and he'll be a friend of mine forever." 

3 women honoured

The other three medals went to three women who have helped keep the music of the Miramichi alive through their performances and work with the Miramichi Folksong Festival. 

Richards honoured Miramichi fiddling legend Mathilda Murdoch, Miramichi Folksong Festival director Susan Butler and folk singer Melanie Ross for their contributions to preserving the music of the region. 

Richards read descriptive short biographies he had written for each of the women, telling those in attendance how their music touched him. 

Forces of nature

Of Butler, Richards said she was a force of nature in her own right. "I cannot imagine the mystical, magical Miramichi without her." 

When it came to Murdoch, who at the age of 98 can no longer play the fiddle due to her physical condition, the senator recalled receiving his Order of Canada on the same day Murdoch received hers.

"That evening she played for our reception, performing for people including Burton Cummings and Mario Lemieux." 

New Brunswick Senator David Adams Richards presented Senate 150th Anniversary Medals to five Miramichiers for their contributions to their communities in various capacities. (Gail Harding/CBC)
Of Ross, Richards said the first time he heard her sing at the Miramichi Folksong Festival, "it was as if I was transported to a world I had long known but at sometime, somehow misplaced, and she was telling me it wasn't lost at all." 

Ross performed one of Richards' favourite songs, Miramichi Men, at the end of the medal presentations. 

Afterwards, Ross said she was very humbled and honoured to be picked as one of the five to receive a medal. 

"I love taking these songs to other places and having people want to come here and having people wonder what it's like here, opening their imaginations because the Miramichi is where I love to be."